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Lawmakers discuss Ogeechee River

POSTED: August 4, 2011 7:04 p.m.

State legislators discussed the pollution of the Ogeechee River, as well as the job security of about 500 people who are employed by a textiles treatment plant being blamed by some for a massive fish kill in May.

Sen. Jack Hill and Reps. Jan Tankersley, Jon Burns and Butch Parrish each spoke during a legislative luncheon Tuesday.

Many topics were covered, but when it came to a question-and-answer session afterwards, the subject of the Ogeechee River and what legislators are doing about the pollution issue arose.

Tankersley, who serves on the state Natural Resources and Environmental Committee, assured the crowd that she stays on top of the matter by keeping in communication with officials from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Division.

She also posts articles and information pertaining to the Ogeechee and the allegations that King America Finishing is the cause of the pollution on her Facebook page, she said.

“I’ve been very frustrated that the EPD has not been able to release anything to the public as to date,” Tankersley said. “I feel like I am doing everything I positively can.”

Tankersley added she has been told by EPD Director Allen Barnes that information about the ongoing investigation into King America Finishing, the pollutants from its effluent released into the river and the fish kill is “enforcement confidential.”

The EPD wants to conduct a thorough, untainted investigation and make an “airtight case,” she said. “Whoever is responsible should be held responsible.”

Burns expressed equal concern about the river, but also said he is concerned about the estimated 500 employees who would lose jobs if the plant shut down.

“It is unacceptable what has happened to the river, but it would also be devastating to lose 500 jobs,” he said. “We need a solution to protect those jobs and preserve the river.”

The Lake Lanier community “recycles” wastewater, treating it and rendering it fit to drink, he said. In fact, the community does drink the water.

Burns said that instead of closing a plant and losing jobs, efforts should be made to keep the plant open and clean its effluent before dumping in into the river, preserving the Ogeechee’s purity and also luring other industry into the area – industry that would not tax the environment but would improve the local economy, he said.

“We need a solution that is long term,” he said. “We need to be proactive from a state standpoint.”

Hill said efforts to restock the river have begun. DNR officials have taken redbreast and bass, as well as eggs, from the river north of King America and are growing them in fisheries to be released back into the Ogeechee south of the plant this fall, he said.

“People live and play (in the river),” he said. “It’s a part of people’s lives. I’ve been touched by the stories people have.”

He said legislators will meet with EPD and DNR officials in Atlanta soon.

“It’s on our to-do list,” he said.

Ogeechee Riverkeeper Dianna Wedincamp and numerous citizens have voiced concern about the May fish kill that left between 33,000 and 36,000 fish of all types dead and rotting in the water.

The fish kill was reported on a Friday but EPD officials did not order the river closed for fishing and swimming until late the following Sunday. Wedincamp and DNR officials traced the fish kill to the King America discharge pipe, which has been seen to gush dark blue-black liquid into the river. No dead fish were found north of the pipe.

Water samples sent for testing after the fish kill revealed ammonia, sodium hydroxide, formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals at high levels in the samples. The water’s pH tested near the discharge pipe also tested at high levels, Wedincamp said.

Tests proved the thousands of fish died of a bacterial disease called columnaris, not known to be harmful to man. The cause of columnaris, however, is “environmental stress.” Wedincamp and others believe the high levels of pollutants caused the stress.

People have also reported health issues they say are results of the alleged large dump of chemicals into the river in May.

Many reported blisters, rashes, nausea, diarrhea and breathing issues. One man, a Marine who swam in the river the weekend of the fish kill, is one of three men who filed a class action suit against King America.

According to information from Marietta attorney Ed Hallman, who is representing the plaintiffs, the man suffered extensive respiratory damage after swimming in the contaminated river.

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